Probably the most fundamental idea in the vast subject of Human Rights concerns freedom of speech since without it, debating ideas is impossible. Tragically, freedom of speech is not only under attack in the West, but has mostly disappeared with the notable exception of the USA with its guarantee of the First Amendment of the Constitution. However in the USA, the so-called progressive left disagree with this freedom which is declining by self-imposed woke censorship if not by legal constraints.
When saying that freedom of speech is disappearing, this does not mean that it is impossible to criticize politicians; fortunately, that still exists, but on a whole range of societal issues, suggesting anything other than that of the established woke orthodoxy is now punished by job losses, social ostracism and in many cases criminal prosecution. Most of the West is now a very long way from the principle that any speech should be allowed except defamation, but that concerns wrong facts not opinions.
Exceptions preventing freedom of speech developed in recent times concerning incitement to violence, defence secrets, inciting racial hatred and in some countries holocaust denial. Absolute freedom of speech is probably not realistic, but as a principle should be defended and furthermore, Article 19 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights states that “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.” For various reasons outside the scope of this subject, what the UN says can often be criticised and many countries ignore this Article, but few truly believing in Western civilisation could disagree with it. The problem now is that many Western politicians and media no longer seriously believe in freedom of speech and the comparison of the situation today with that of only 10 or 15 years ago is astonishing.
The origin of this deplorable situation is essentially the result of 2 phenomena:
1) a self-hate/guilt philosophy that is not new and often related to mental illnesses. For psychological or psychoanalytical reasons, some people hate themselves, their families, their jobs and by extension, their life and society around. This self-hatred is translated by the view that the West is to blame for all the world’s problems so historically, many European ‘intellectuals’ preferred Stalin’s communism with millions of victims to Western capitalism even after Stalin was denounced by the Soviet rulers themselves in the 1950s. Others preferred fascism before World War 2 since Mussolini got the trains to run on time and Hitler got autobahns built. In the 1970s some so-called Western thinkers preferred Mao’s ‘Great Leap Forward’ in China leading to between 35-45 million deaths rather than supposed US imperialism in Korea and Vietnam.
As political and economic revolutionary Marxism did not succeed, the cultural version aims to destroy Western societal norms by destroying family structures (gender fluidity), rewriting history (removing statues) or ‘combatting’ perceived inequalities and hierarchies related to age, sex, social class, wealth, skin colour, sexual orientation or any other theoretical handicap. This is backed up by a cancel culture where those in disagreement are to be silenced, publicly and socially ostracised and lose their jobs. Try to get a research grant for climate change if you believe that climate is changing naturally and not because of human created CO2. Try to get a job in a public institution if you believe the homosexuality is not normal behaviour and transsexuality even less. This intolerance of what were majority opinions until recently has spread from the public sector to private corporations, universities, charities, most media, the police and the armed forces. In private, many people do not believe in what they say, but feel obliged like in totalitarian regimes to publicly express certain views. Orwell’s 1984 described the situation perfectly with thoughtcrime and everything being the reverse of what was said, “war is peace” etc.
As far as alleged discriminations are concerned, the irony is that it is precisely the West that has dealt with most discriminations which no longer exist or insignificantly. Like the abolition of slavery, it is the West with Human Rights and freedom of expression that was able to debate what was wrong and how it should be changed. It is in other civilisations where the real problems exist such as inequality for non-Muslims in Islamic societies or persecution of those with different opinions from Communist authorities in China. Some in the West supporting LBGTQ etc rights for sexual minorities show grotesque double standards, remaining deafeningly silent about Islamic regimes treating women as tenth-class citizens and persecuting homosexuals with death penalties. Every day, cultural Marxists blame all the world’s problems on Western white, heterosexual, middle aged or older men and was seen in the hysterical Trump Derangement Syndrome or similar in much of the Western media.
2) the second reason for this situation arose from stifling political correctness before being translated into recent laws. Political correctness itself is not new so historically, what was said to Monarchs and Emperors was what they wanted to hear not what those speaking actually believed. In the 20th century, this continued in dictatorships where officials in Stalin’s Soviet Union celebrated reaching tractor production objectives when they knew that the figures were untrue. Those expelled from Chinese cities to work in fields and live in remote villages under Mao’s policy announced how happy they were. In Hitler’s Germany, military generals proclaimed it was essential to use scarce logistics to transport Jews to death camps rather than for troop movements or helping injured soldiers get treatment.
Recent Western political correctness started with 1980s with the attempt to avoid discrimination and to promote minority inclusivity, both objectives which might be welcomed. It was suggested that people should have ‘first names’ not ‘Christian names’ and ‘Happy Christmas’ might be replaced with ‘Happy Holidays.’ However, in the last 20 years, these simple examples have spread to all aspects of daily life, deforming ordinary language that becomes artificial and ugly as seen in endless debates about inclusive grammar when speaking and writing. Since gender is apparently no longer binary, it becomes even more complicated and everything said or written becomes potentially discriminatory. It is often now illegal to use wrong gender pronouns so in Ireland a school teacher has been sent to prison for refusing to refer to a boy changing sex as ‘they.’ Some think that sex can change by simple self-identification without any need for medical intervention which does not change a person’s sex anyway. So men allegedly guilty of rape cannot be charged as such if they identify as women and are placed in women’s prisons or hospital wards. Men claiming to be women compete in women only sports events and usually win, but the defeated women concerned are so frightened of transphobia laws that they say nothing or only complain under strict conditions of anonymity. The psychological consequences of being frightened to speak are well-known and fortunately some sporting authorities are belatedly dealing with this discrimination against (real) women.
The Bible describes homosexual behaviour as an ‘abomination’, a description that many today might feel excessive, but is quoting biblical texts now to be considered as illegal despite the Judeo-Christian heritage in Western countries? Israel Folau, an Australian rugby player and fundamentalist Christian was banned from playing because he considers that “hell awaits” all homosexuals, (with adulterers, fornicators, thieves, atheists, drunks and liars). The issue is not whether one agrees with these views, but whether they should be allowed to be expressed. Despite protests, Mr. Folau is now allowed to play rugby in England where Black Lives Matter posters existed everywhere and where many players, politicians, film stars etc used to ‘bend the knee.’ Suggesting (obviously) that White Lives (also) Matter is considered racist and someone lost a job in England recently because of saying so.
If one considers that children are better with a mother and a father of biologically different sexes and not the same sex nor claiming to be another sex, is this illegal homophobia or transphobia? Since phobias are irrational anxieties and mental illnesses, is this an attempt to make impossible laws against these illnesses? Is it suggested that those with negative opinions about the groups concerned are mentally ill just like in the Soviet Union when those criticising the regime were sent to psychiatric hospitals? For those feeling that this is an exaggeration, it should be remembered that French populist politician Marine Le Pen was ordered by the courts to undergo psychiatric analysis when republishing atrocities from Isis. Phobia laws are very recent and the oldest, islamophobia, was only created about 15 years ago to stifle debate about Islam, the idea coming from the Muslim Brotherhood, an illegal terrorist organisation in many countries including Egypt. That there are no laws about other religions makes the concept of Islamophobia even less acceptable. US political correctness led to any reference of ‘Islamist terrorism’ being removed from FBI investigation vocabulary under ex-President Obama so one such attack on a military base had to be ludicrously described as ‘workplace violence.’ On the climate and Covid debates, those against the majority view are often considered as bizarre or believing in conspiracies or mentally unstable with no attempt to address the issues.
An alternative to avoid the problem is self-censorship only discussing controversial issues with those with similar opinions, just like in totalitarian dictatorships where certain issues are not discussed and politicians not criticised. As an example, most US media refused to publish satirical articles from Danish cartoonists or ‘Charlie Hebdo’ in France which led to violent protests and murders by offended Muslims; a French teacher was decapitated by an Islamic terrorist for discussing the cartoons in his class. In Sweden, a man aged 75 faced 2 years in prison for describing Islam as a “fascist ideology” after citing numerous references in the Koran about killing infidels. In France jokes about air transport led to apologies by a football club trainer who was told by the Prime Minister that he needed to consider (in her opinion) the current climate catastrophe. Western politicians are now telling people what to think and not just what to they cannot say; Stalin and others would have been proud.
The West has gone dystopian concerning freedom of speech since even citing true facts is no longer a sufficient defence, absolutely contrary to the basic rule about defamation. In Munich someone was found guilty of ‘hateful speech’ when posting on the social media a true World War 2 photo of Nazis meeting a Muslim religious leader in 1943 who helped to create the Bosnian SS Muslim Division responsible for massacres of Serbian Jews and Christians. Former President Trump’s retweeting of true videos of Islamists killing opponents and destroying statues of the Virgin Mary led to ‘universal condemnation’ because the original authors of the videos are members of the extreme right neo-fascist political group Britain First. “Don’t kill the messenger” is the obvious response and broadcasting true messages cannot be as important as the content. If the logic of preventing publication of atrocities by Islamists is to prevent the spread of violence then it is too late as the publications are already online and those tempted by this type of activity know where to look. If the objective is to prevent (unacceptable) revenge hate crimes on Muslims, it should be illegal to show documentaries about Nazi concentration camps or Stalin’s Gulags as it might lead to revenge hate crimes against Germans or Russians.
In 1977 in the USA, constitutional freedom of speech was the justification for allowing Neo-Nazis with odious banners proclaiming ‘Hitler was right’ and ‘Hitler should have finished the job’ to march through Skokie, a Chicago suburb with a large Jewish population including survivors of concentration camps. In 2017, ‘anti-fascists’ (applauded by most US media) prevented Neo-Nazis from demonstrating in Charlottesville, Virginia (about removing statues of Confederate War leaders) despite court approval for the demonstration precisely under the same principle of free speech. The obvious irony is anti-fascists acting as fascists censoring opinions and has been seen in the recent removal of statues and book burning including the Bible just like in Nazi Germany. It might be that some of these statues related to another time and have little place in modern society, but the point is that they reflected a different time and if indeed there is some agreement about their removal, then the statue in question should be placed in a museum with an educational context. At the very least there needs to be a debate and wide consensus about this since it is now suggested that Lincoln or Washington be replaced in the USA or Rhodes, Nelson or Churchill in the UK or Colbert, Voltaire and Ferry in France…
In much of the West there is now an intolerance of different views preventing the expression of (perhaps) minority opinions today, but which were in fact majority opinions until recently. Compulsory diversity training inside both public and private organisations exists with obligatory use of inclusive language accompanied by psychological analysis of anti-social behaviour, a straight copy from the Soviet Union. Western universities create ‘safe spaces’ where education officials check what is said so that students feel ‘emotionally comfortable’ and not challenged with ‘micro aggressions’ if confronted with views with which they might disagree. Inside these spaces, students and with their professors frightened of saying anything interpreted as potentially racist can meet and agree on everything. Recent opinion polls show many now feel that even physical violence should be used against ‘offensive’ opinions and many more suggest that these opinions should not be expressed as a matter of principle. Others consider that it is automatically racist for any white politician to criticise any political views of any ‘politician of colour’ and a black French politician recently suggested that no white person can be correct in his views on racism compared to anyone black or Arab. This is of course, true racism since white people are not to be treated in the same way as black (or vice versa). Every issue becomes a matter of identity, judged by reference to colour, ethnicity, sexual orientation or religion, not the merits of the discussion.
Freedom of speech is being replaced by freedom from speech which some people find offensive but by definition, freedom of speech means precisely that some people will be offended. Journalists reporting the views of controversial figures are now threatened with legal consequences and those with the opinions lose their jobs. Even the word ‘offence’ is considered too high a threshold so some laws make it illegal where victims suffer from ‘hurt feelings’ with guilt not based on an objective standard whether ‘reasonable people’ might have their feelings hurt, but whether the so-called victims consider it to be the case. Some recent UK legislation is written this way, contrary to the basic principle of Human Rights (and the Rule of Law) that laws should be objective and neutral and not subjective.
The role of the media
With many recent issues such as Covid, the climate or definitions of racism, almost all the mainstream media have the same message and it does no service to Western democracy if plurality of opinion is stifled in this way. The minimum requirement for public service broadcasters or media should be that a range of different views be heard. The BBC will refer to illegal immigrants as refugees before any decision about their status has been made and those protesting about these people housed in hotels are considered automatically as racist. If the media is privately owned, the owners can indeed decide the editorial line, but as CNN and the New York Times have discovered, sometimes the customers look elsewhere.
Social networks were said to the alternative to the mainstream media where users could say what they liked, but that time has long passed since the platform owners now regularly censure opinion or restrict access or warn readers about what they consider controversial views. When the President of the United States is banned, (but not the Ayatollahs nor the Talibans nor those wishing that the Queen of England suffers an “excruciating death”) then the situation is dramatic. If those believing in free speech do not realise this danger, then “there is nobody so blind as those who don’t want to see and nobody so deaf as those who don’t want to hear.” There is no justification for censorship at all by these platforms who are legally treated like telephone companies in the past, that is not responsible for the legality of the communication. The alternative is for the social media platforms to be legally liable for what is said just like publishers; this idea from ex-President Trump was absurdly described as censorship, but is perfectly logical. Indeed the hysterical reaction to the takeover of Twitter by Elon Musk proposing real free speech shows the current situation well.
The situation is made worse by the fact that the censorship is entirely one-sided against conservatives and those generally considered on the right by the high-tech companies whose owners are entirely on the liberal ‘progressive’ left. The fact that so-called liberals censor opinions is an irony that has been well-discussed. Any opinion should be allowed except where the law prevents it and a proposed law in the UK about online comment not being allowed despite being legal is little more than legislating for hurt feelings.
The European Court of Human Rights judgement in 2018 sums up the situation today. An Austrian woman was found to have acted illegally when publishing an opinion that “exceeds permissible limits of free discussion.” Her ‘crime’ was to suggest (as part of a seminar on the history of religions) that a sexual relationship between the Prophet Mohammed, then aged 56, with one of his wives Aisha then aged 9, would today be considered as paedophilia.
It is more than time to reassert the need for freedom of speech as an integral part of Western civilisation. Restrictions on freedom of speech should be reconsidered with the affirmation of the basic right to hold and express any opinion unless there are legal reasons preventing it and those legal reasons should be very limited as was the case until recently. Politicians believing in freedom of speech and not just pretending to do so need to consider real societal or general interest and the views of the majority; appeasing sectorial interests of load mouth minorities should not be a basis for restrictions.